An Illinois House panel voted Wednesday to require children in state care be accompanied by an adult when leaving state emergency shelters, the latest attempt by the state to address a growing list of problems at its troubled child welfare agency.
Supporters of the proposed bill, which will now be heard before the full House, told the Human Services Committee the goal is to ensure children are in safe and secure environments.
Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is the product of cooperation between the Illinois Dept. of Child and Family Services and the state’s largest shelter, Bronzeville-based Aunt Martha’s.
Dunkin said the proposed practices have been successful at the shelter, which houses about 60 children each day.
“We aren’t talking about locking facilities up,” Dunkin said. “If a kid is going to leave, some personnel need to be associated or attached to that young person.”
In addition to providing for the safety of the children, Dunkin also pointed out the law will protect the state.
“Imagine at the age of 11, you telling an adult ‘I want to leave and I’m leaving’ and with whomever outside of the facility,” Dunkin said. “What if something happens? The state is on the hook. That is our negligence.’
Opposing the measure was Marge Berglind, president and CEO of the Child Care Association of Illinois. Berglind said the bill will force shelters to either lock the facilities or restrain kids when they want to leave.
“I think that we don’t want to go down that path without a better set of discussions about the implications,” she said. “We either have to lock the facilities, restrain the children or have a great amount of increased staff to make sure kids aren’t trying to leave on their own.”
Dunkin acknowledged those concerns and said work needs to be done to ensure children would not be unduly restrained.
Dunkin’s proposed reforms come in the wake of the Chicago Tribune’s recent “Harsh Treatment” investigation in Dec. 2014, which highlighted unreported rapes and assault allegations in juvenile residential treatment centers and has brought considerable scrutiny on DCFS.
Danielle Gomez, supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian office, represents about 6,000 Illinois children, with nearly one-third having spent time in emergency shelters. She said the real problem is children and young adults who, by law, should only be under state supervision for a maximum of 30 days, spending anywhere from 60 to 120 days in the shelters.
“When you have 15–16–17-year-olds sitting at a shelter and not in the types of placements they are supposed to be in, they get bored, they get frustrated and they leave,” Gomez said.
“The system has to have the capacity to meet their needs on a timely basis so they are not sitting in an environment that is not intended to provide long-term care.”
Meryl Paniak, chief counsel of DCFS, said if the current version passes, DCFS will need an additional $10 million to implement the reforms, which would require transitioning the emergency shelters into secure child care facilities.
Paniak acknowledged Dunkin’s intent is not to create “secure” facilities, but rather to increase supervision at the emergency shelters. She expects this distinction will be made clear as talks between the parties continue.